Syringa collected by the waters of the Clark River in 1806 (Philadelphus Lewisii), named for Merriweather Lewis by botanist Frederick Pursh, who cataloged plant specimens collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition.
From southern British Columbia to the central California Sierra, and east to Idaho and Montana, syringa flowers were included on the Idaho state seal designed in 1890. In 1931, it was officially designated as the state flower of Idaho.
A loose-branched, deciduous shrub, Syringa makes a breathtaking display when in full bloom, usually between May and July. The one- to two-inch, waxy white, four-petalled flowers appear in clusters of 3 to 15. The flower centers have many yellow stamens and are highly fragrant, resembling orange blossoms – hence the common name Mock Orange. Plant next to a patio or walkway or create a dramatic effect hedge or screen to enjoy the fragrance on a warm day.
common name for “Syringa” (Philadelphus Lewisii) is actually the name of a genus of lilacs, botanically unrelated. The upright bush structure and abundant flowering are somewhat reminiscent of lilacs, but the two plants are in different plant families.
Syringa prefers full sun; it is drought tolerant and not picky about soil, growing from cliffs to floodplains. It responds well to pruning in the garden. Pruning old wood and cutting back longer stems will help produce more abundant blooms. Syringa is destroyed by fire but regenerates from root crowns and underground rhizomes.
This 3- to 10-foot-tall shrub is characterized by long stems that are red when fresh and gray as the bark sheds. The leaves are oval with smooth or slightly toothed edges, opposite to the stem. The leaves and bark are rich in saponins and when crushed with water give a mild, soapy cleanser.
Deer and elk browse the new Syringa shoots. The fragrant flowers attract a variety of pollinating insects, and the seeds are food for game birds and squirrels. Bushy habitat shelters birds and small mammals.
Local people have made good use of Syringa. The stalks became finely twisted baskets. The wood was used for cradle rings, snowshoes, arrows and fish spears. By removing the tender center of the straight branches, he formed tobacco pipes.
Photos and a description of Syringa are found on page 108 of Native Plant Environments in the Idaho Panhandle, a KNPS publication available at local bookstores and the Bonner County Historical Museum. Specimen plant at the North Idaho Native Plant Arboretum, 611 S Ella St. in Sandpoint.
Native Plant Notes Created by the Kinnikinnick Native Plant Society. To learn more about KNPS and the North Idaho Native Plant Arboretum, visit naturalplantsociety.org.